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Howard League blog · 13 Apr 2021

My life’s work, my mission, has been at the Howard League

I have been at the helm of the Howard League for Penal Reform for more than three decades. I was once on Radio 4’s Today programme when they joked that I was destined to do this job, as my name means ‘free the prisoners’. And it feels exactly like that.

My working life has been spent in working for social justice. I started teaching children in Liverpool who faced challenges, did five years campaigning at Amnesty International for people who were tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs and am now working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. Along the way I have had some non-executive roles helping to sort out school food, being part of the governing body of Greenwich University and overseeing the NHS in Barnet, my local borough. I was elected twice as a local councillor.

But my life’s work, my mission, has been at the Howard League.

I want to pay tribute to the many people who have worked and volunteered with me at the Howard League. They are the most talented, hard-working and joyful people I have ever met.

The Howard League is a special organisation; it has always held a central place in the political and justice landscape of the country. We contribute to the public discourse on the most important issues facing a government – how to keep people safe and how to respond to challenges to public order.

Since Socrates, the question ‘What is Justice?’ has characterised the nature of the state. A country at ease with itself, with economic and social equality tends to use prison less. Sadly, that is not the case with the UK with its central focus on punishment.

In the face of challenges, the Howard League has an amazing track record of success.

During my tenure we have worked with the police to reduce child arrests by two thirds. This means that hundreds of thousands – yes, I do mean that huge number – of children have not suffered the trauma and life damage of arrest.

Contact with the police is a route into crime for children, so the reduction in arrests has reduced crime and prevented people becoming victims – as well as saving the public purse from unnecessary expense.

We set up an in-house legal service for children and young people some 20 years ago. Hundreds have been helped with support on release from prison and getting justice inside prison in the face of systemic abuse.

The Howard League is a special organisation; it has always held a central place in the political and justice landscape of the country

We have taken test cases that achieved reform, forcing the government to recognise that children in prison should have the same legal protections as all children and we are currently challenging the use of solitary confinement on children.

We have run successful campaigns that have changed public attitudes. When the government tried to ban prisoners’ access to books, we mobilised writers and actors to publicise our campaign.

In the last few weeks, hundreds of our members and supporters have contacted their MPs to oppose the building of more prison cells for women.

We use mainstream and social media to talk about prison use and conditions, community responses to crime and better sanctions.

The charity’s mission is primarily to achieve system reform and contribute to public education on penal issues, and we achieve this with a mixed toolkit of research, policy development, campaigns and legal help for individuals whose lived experience informs our work.

On a personal note, when I took over, although the charity was well respected, it was almost bankrupt. I am grateful to the trusts and individuals who allow me to celebrate the fact that the Howard League is financially stable, owns a headquarters building and has a range of funding streams that means we are not beholden to one source of funding.

People sometimes say that fundraising is problematic, but I have not found it so, as I have enjoyed working with donors who have been supportive and creative.

I have taken an organisation that was on the brink of being wound up, to one that is vibrant, benefits from an amazing staff team and is facing the future with energy and vision.

I am proud of what I have achieved and thankful to the many people who I have worked with. It has been an honour and a joy.

Thank you, it’s been a blast, and I will miss you all.


  • Frances,

    You are a legend and I am sure that you will continue to make wise, incisive and vital contributions and interventions in advancing our collective quest for justice. For many years I have valued your personal friendship, your passion and your professional integrity and I will continue to do so for many years to come.

    Very best wishes,

    Barry x

  • Sir Peter Bottomley MP says:

    Thank you for your enduring activity aimed as less crime, safer communities and fewer in prison.
    Peter B, MP

  • Heather De Lyon says:

    Congratulations on all you and The Howard League have achieved Frances and all the very important issues you have highlighted and tackled over the last 34 years.

  • Mike Kirby says:

    I will never forget your visit to Jersey when I was the governor at La Moye prison. Your comments on the short sighted views of the local politicians gave me renewed commitment to push ahead with the reforms to bring the establishment into the 21st century. You will be missed.

  • Chris Freeman says:

    Brilliant work Frances

  • Dear Frances
    On behalf of all of us at Howard League Scotland, comradely greetings from north of the border!

    Thank you, for being such a committed, forceful and articulate voice for so many years.

    Hats off! Hats absolutely off.

    with very best wishes
    Richard, pp HLS Committee

  • Rona Epstein says:

    Dear Frances
    You can certainly be proud of your achievements at the HL. We will miss your acute, penetrating and always illuminating comments on penal issues, and we’ll miss your wisdom and commitment.
    I send all best wishes for your future

  • Ross Little says:

    Congratulations Frances on all your work and achievements over the years with the Howard League. Thank you for the opportunity to work with you all there – I loved that job. Good luck for whatever comes next.

  • Huge thanks Frances, you have done amazing work within the Howard League and you leave a lasting legacy of concern for justice for all. We will miss your careful and thoughtful contributions as well as your campaigning zeal. Well done…

  • Fran Russell says:

    Dear Frances,
    I had some of the best times of my career working with you at the HL . Your willingness to tell truth to power whoever they were and take risk was empowering, exciting to work with and effective. I too learnt a great deal working alongside you. Right from those very early days when still a tiny organisation you gave the HL a strong political voice. An incredible service to the cause of penal reform. Fran x

  • Paul Streets says:

    Really the end of an era Frances. You leave a powerful and important platform for those who follow. I hope you are moving on to do something for you, having given so much, for so long to others – who have often had little support or compassion from elsewhere.

  • Jonathan Evans says:

    Thank you so much for your important work over the years. You will be missed, but your legacy is assured. All best wishes for the future.

  • Mike Crofts says:

    Best of luck for all you have planned in the future Frances.
    Your work to decriminalise children has been particularly inspiring. What is most profound about it, is that we will never know how many years of life have been saved from years of imprisonment because of your work. I’m sure it’s very many, and that really is something to be proud of.
    Best wishes

  • Claire McCarthy says:

    Frances, I will always be grateful for the opportunities you gave me and the things I learned whilst working with you. So, thank you.

    It really is the end of an era.

    I will always be proud to say I worked at the Howard League. Its such an important organisation. And we had some great times as a staff team too.

    To leave it stronger than you found it, is the most important legacy a CEO can bestow on any organisation, and you have clearly done that.

    Enjoy the next phase of your life.

    Claire McCarthy

  • Michael Grewcock says:

    It was a privilege to work with you Frances. You have made an enormous contribution. Have a great retirement. Mike x

  • Rosie Meek says:

    What a legacy you are leaving, Frances. I am proud to have worked for the Howard League early in my career and I learnt a lot from you (and Anita). You’ve built an incredible team and the impact of your efforts will be significant and long-lasting.

  • Alison Liebling says:

    You have done an amazing job. This is the end of an era. Congratulations on what you have achieved, and on staying in the role in a way that made it meaningful and effective. Good luck in the next phase of your life …

  • Lottie Unders says:

    Great news, well done. Change is always a positive so keep moving forward.

  • Christine says:

    Well done to you and your colleagues, making a world of difference to prisoners and prison life.

  • Congratulations on a wonderful job really well done.

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